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Grumpy Old Fan | Learning to love Mary Marvel

by  in Comic News Comment
Grumpy Old Fan | Learning to love Mary Marvel

Let me start by saying that I am supremely unqualified to speak about what women or girls want from superhero comics. In this respect I am probably pretty similar to former DC publisher Paul Levitz, who (as you might have heard) told the Comics Journal:

I think the whole myth of superheroes is that they simply aren’t appealing to women as they are to men. I’d like to think I had a pretty good track record on that myself as a writer, as the Legion historically had a pretty good number of female readers, Chris Claremont on his years on the X-Men had a tremendous number of female readers, and there may be any number of other superhero titles that had a fair balance. But overall it would surprise me at any point if you started to have a title that was both a traditional superhero and a majority female audience.

What strikes me about Mr. Levitz’s comments (not just those but others in the article) is the apparent indifference they betray to the prospect of a big female readership. He seems to suggest that while he wouldn’t turn one down, it’s not something DC has particularly pursued. Many more men than women read superhero comics, so DC has focused more on the guys. Even when Sandman appeals to women, that ends up proving his point, because Sandman and Vertigo aren’t superheroes.

Again, at this point I am neither well-equipped nor especially interested in evaluating Mr. Levitz’s arguments. Nevertheless, the attitude that “we don’t need to go this way because it’s never panned out before” sounds rather short-sighted. In the current publishing climate, DC simply can’t afford to ignore women and girls. It needs all the readers it can get.

With all that in mind, I’d now like to talk about Mary Marvel.

* * *

Slowly but surely I am making my way through Showcase Presents Shazam! Volume 1, which reprints the then-new material from the first 33 issues of DC’s 1970s Marvel Family revival. As a youngster I read the later issues of Shazam!, when the series was retooled to reflect the live-action TV series. Needless to say, the comics were better — the show didn’t have the budget to transport the Capitol Building back to dinosaur times.

Anyway, the first twenty or so issues of Shazam! tried to evoke the feeling of Marvel Family stories from the ‘40s and early ‘50s. Producing these stories for DC must have been fairly bittersweet for original Marvel Family artists C.C. Beck and Kurt Schaffenberger, since DC’s allegations of copyright infringement essentially forced Fawcett Comics (the Marvels’ original home) out of business. Denny O’Neil and Elliot S! Maggin, the young DC writers working on Shazam!, may have had similar feelings.

Regardless, the results were whimsical and good-natured, sometimes to a fault. Beck’s more cartoonish style didn’t always translate well to early-‘70s fashions, and his design for new character Sunny Sparkle (“the nicest guy in the world”) could be an unnerving blend of big eyes, freckles, and teeth. Still, DC was apparently striving not just for continuity with, but fidelity to, the original stories; and with Shazam! reprinting them too, ‘70s readers could judge for themselves.

Now, for the most part, that all applies to the Captain Marvel stories. Before too long, though, Captain Marvel Jr. and Mary Marvel had gotten their own occasional features in Shazam!, each with its own artistic style. This too was faithful to the Fawcett originals, when artist Mac Raboy drew Junior’s adventures in a more realistic style. Mary’s stories fell somewhere in between — not as cartoonish as Cap’s or as realistic as Junior’s. Dave Cockrum and Dick Giordano were among Junior’s Shazam! artists, whereas Bob Oksner drew all of Mary’s solo adventures. (Oksner also started drawing Captain Marvel stories with issue #10.)

To be sure, there were only four new Mary Marvel solo stories in Shazam!’s thirty-five-issue run. Each was written by E. Nelson Bridwell, and none were over eight pages. In issue #10’s “The Thanksgiving Thieves” (February 1974), Mary foils looters trying to take advantage of the annual Thanksgiving parade. “The Haunted Clubhouse” (issue #13, July-August 1974) revolved around the Mary Marvel Fan Club’s unfortunate choice of headquarters. Issue #16’s “The Green-Eyed Monster” (January-February 1975) featured a girl jealous of Mary’s heroic career; and issue #19’s “The Secret of the Smiling Swordsman” (July-August 1975) pitted Mary and Uncle Marvel against a dandified art thief.

Clearly the format of these backup stories meant that they had to be fairly simple and straightforward, with no real opportunity to develop continuing subplots or their own supporting cast. Still, each is charming in its own way, and each gives Mary the chance to show off her super-powers. They’re the kinds of stories you’d expect a superhero to wrap up in six or seven pages, but at the same time they present Mary as a resolute character utterly confident in herself and her abilities. Oksner’s soft-focus artwork updates Mary appropriately for the 1970s, giving her an indeterminate young-adult look without sexualizing her noticeably. Later portrayals of Mary caricatured her as innocent to the point of gullibility, but here she is dealing with situations which don’t have much nuance. If Mary’s solo adventures had continued, perhaps they might cumulatively have made her look bland or pedantic. Nevertheless, I can see this version of Mary Marvel developing into a capable, professional character not unlike Power Girl or the Earth-1 Supergirl.

Indeed, the Marvel Family adventures where Mary fights alongside Cap and Junior bear this out. In the book-length “Evil Return of the Monster Society” (issue #14, September-October 1974), Mary barks orders to her big brother: “I’ll save [the people]! You go after the monster!” Aliens capture Mary Batson in issue #17’s “The Pied Un-Piper” (March-April 1975), but when she’s freed aboard their ship, she immediately changes to Mary Marvel and starts busting heads. Finally, in issue #20’s “The Strange and Terrible Disappearance of Maxwell Zodiac” (September-October 1975), Mary fends off a “platoon” of Sumo wrestlers, thinking “[e]nd of lesson in hospitality!” afterwards. Kurt Schaffenberger drew these stories, and his thicker lines and more deliberate style gave Mary a more action-oriented look. Likewise, Denny O’Neil (who wrote issues #14 and #17) and Elliot S! Maggin were able to “go bigger” with these stories, so Mary got to strut her stuff that much more.

These various formats actually make Showcase Presents Shazam! a decent advertisement for tracking down the original back issues. Most featured at least one reprint (up to issue #25, I think), and issues #12 through #17 were 100-page Giants. I realize there are many factors weighing against such collections today, but quite a few 8-page stories could fit in one of DC’s new 100-page $7.99 reprint books. Such short stories would also fit ideally into an e-reader library; and at the risk of getting too far ahead of myself, might even spur more ambitious Marvel Family hard-cover reprints. There is such a wealth of Marvel Family material in the DC vaults that its absence from the shelves mystifies me. If DC has any interest in reaching out to women or girls, why not see how they respond to a couple decades’ worth of Mary Marvel stories?

Currently, of course, Mary and Billy are pretty far down the DC bench. They’ve lost their Marvel powers and will be seen next in January’s Shazam! one-shot. Here’s hoping DC has cogent, constructive plans for putting them back in action. I recognize that Billy’s age makes it structurally difficult for him to be a continuing character. He can’t be a “kid who turns into an adult” forever — at some point, he has to grow up. I suspect “growing up” also went into the decision to turn Mary to the dark side in Countdown and Final Crisis. Still, apart from (maybe) being too similar to Supergirl and/or Power Girl, Mary could fit easily into the present-day DC lineup. From the ‘40s through the ‘80s, she was a character who knew her place in the world and enjoyed using her abilities for good. That’s corny, but she made it look fun.